Empowerment Service

I’ve got ten years of experience in a retail, where I didn’t just provide excellent customer service, but I worked at getting other people to provide it too. I’ve managed, coached, and written policies in order to create a team that can go above and beyond in serving customers.

When I started in libraries, I began with the same approach. I walked patrons over to the materials they wanted. I sat for an hour helping a woman figure out how to download eBooks. I did extensive research for people, emailing them with resource lists, and long, carefully-written explanations. I always wanted to go the extra mile to provide great service.

I still want to provide great service, but I’m drastically altering my methods and approach.

I’m trying move from the “pampering” model to the “empowerment” model.

A major reason for this is time and limited resources, as I discussed here. There are just too many people who need help, and too few people to help them. If there are five patrons waiting at the reference desk, sending a patron to find her own books frees me up to help the next person much more quickly. The American Library Association’s motto is “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.” Dour and uninspiring that may be, but it does hit the heart of the matter – the library is a shared resource, and time is money.

But the other part of my decision to switch to the empowerment model is because really, patrons own the library. So I want to make sure they know how their investment works.

Patrons are not pampered guests, they’re family. The library is their house too.

As nice as it is to be taken care of, it’s also great to be able to look around and say “all these books are belong to me.” Because they do. The computers too. And the DVDs. Etc. etc.

Where the customer service comes in, in the empowerment model, is this: Patrons shouldn’t just be able to operate the library themselves, they should be happy about it. They should feel comfortable and supported.

So when I’m busy, I’ll say something like, “I need to make sure I help these people behind you, so here’s what I’d like to do: You go take a look on the shelf at this call number. If you can’t find what you need, come back and we’ll cook up another strategy. Does that sound ok?” And I make very sure that they know I’d be very happy to see them, if they did come back for more strategizing. Here’s another thing I might say, if it’s less busy, “This is the call number for your book. The numbers start there at 000 and go up to the 900s. Do you think you can find it, or would you like me to come with you?” And again, I make it very clear that it is their choice, and either choice is ok by me.

It’s their library.

Sitting beside the fireplace reading a book, Nanango, ca. 1923

Passive Programs and Other Experiential Library Doings

In the books I loved to read as a kid, libraries are crazy old buildings full of secrets.  The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn sends Anthony Monday all over the library, following obscure clues to uncover something of great wealth.  I vividly remember the scene from Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario where Eugene Winkleman visits the Rochester Public Library and the children’s librarian tells him there is a secret room – which he must find for himself.

I think that it’s important that libraries find lots of different ways to interact with patrons.  Not only because our new post 2.0 world is participatory, but because it is important that libraries nurture discovery.  As I talked about here, the library allows us to conduct intellectual experiments.  The value of libraries is firmly rooted in self-directed learning and enjoyment.  To underscore that value, we need to keep patrons engaged, puzzled, and on their toes.**

Below is a round-up of a few of the passive programs and experiential stations I’ve set up in the past few months:

The Ball of String

 Started this size:
ball of string
And has grown to this size:

The Ball of String idea is lifted from AnyThink libraries.  AnyThink is doing some really innovative stuff!  They were a community where only 10% of people had library cards, and 63% were under 45 years old.  Part of their recipe for rejuvenating their relationship with the community was shifting to a more experiential model of library service.  There’s a good article about AnyThink here. I learned about their “experience zones” via Stacie Ledden in the ALATT FB group – one was simply a ball of string.

The Mystery Mystery

This was inspired by the “Blind Date with a Book” displays that were happening in libraries on Valentine’s day.  So far we’ve had five.  There is not currently a kid one, and the adult one has sat around for a while since we moved it off the main circ desk.  Our library uses Encore, and I tag the books in the catalog. 

Lucky Pick

After seeing the Mystery, Mystery, one of our 12 year old regular patrons had the idea to “take two books and package them together, and patrons don’t know which one they are getting.”  We have done 23 Lucky Picks.  Most of them were chosen by me, with the exception of the current ones, which were chosen by the patron and include picture books as well as chapter books (he chose one of the picture books because it was the first book he ever read at our library).  Circulation has also slowed down after moving them to the shelves from the circ desk.  At another branch in the system, the branch manager had the idea to wrap the lucky picks in some gift wrap she had.  Those seem to be moving quicker – everyone loves presents.

The Craft Station

One comment we recently received was the suggestion to “make an area for 8-12 year olds.”  The craft station provides more for this age to do in the library. We’ve gone through three crafts – a paper plate clover was up for a week, a paper plate Easter basket was up for two weeks, and a (non-paper plate) Garden craft just went up for April.  We now also have crayons and coloring sheets out on this station.  The coloring has been used, I’m not sure if the crafts have been done other than when the facilitator of one of our crafts programs didn’t show up.  The April craft may be more countable, as there is a place for the finished craft to be displayed in the library.

The Viewfinder Station

This is also less quantifiable.  I watched kids be amazed and delighted by the viewfinder, and some of them did write down what they saw on the sheet – “rockets” and “izrael.”

Type-spiration Station for Poetry Month

This will be up for April, so we’ll see how it went at the end of the month.  So far we’ve had one kid type away and then ask “hey, how do you print this out?”

Your Library Fortune


Reader’s advisory, 3rd grade style.  Fortunes are:

  • You will read a mystery
  • You will read a book with a red cover
  • There will be a talking animal in the book
  • Call number 821
  • Librarian’s choice
  • Author’s first name will be Jane
  • The title of your book will start with S
  • Something historical or hysterical

Pope Shelf


Books about the conclave, biographies of former popes, and the opportunity to make your own origami pope hat.

Book Crush
Book Crush
More 3rd grade style interaction. Are you a secret admirer of a book? Send it a valentine. Your crush responds on Facebook.

For example:

A sweet tale of requited love: Our director writes, “Dear Gone With the Wind, I’ve loved you since high school and will love you forever.” Our hearts are aflutter because Gone With the Wind has “always felt the same way!”


Someone wrote “Dear Raskolnikov we are so alike ♥ Let’s go on a date?” Unfortunately, Crime and Punishment was on the holdshelf, so Raskolnikov is waiting for some one else.

**Librarians might wish to think of patrons as cats, as depicted in this Monty Python Sketch.